March, 2012

Quick Tip #1: Protect Your Meeting from Hijackers

Facilitating a group meeting, especially about a thorny subject, opens the door for hijacking if you’re not careful.  A meeting hijacking is when someone with a very strong point of view starts off the group discussion, setting a negative tone and direction for the meeting.  When this happens, other group members who are less willing to be vocal shrink before your very eyes.  They become spectators rather than participants.  It’s not pretty.

Here’s one way to avoid a hijacking

1.  Prepare for the meeting by developing THREE KEY QUESTIONS.  For example: “How did this report help you better understand this problem in Milwaukee.”  “What concerns raised by the report need to be addressed in the next revision?”  “What are three ways we could improve our system moving forward?”

2.  Start the meeting by asking each person – on their own/with no discussion – to provide written answers to the questions. 

3.  Open the discussion by going from person to person to get their responses.  As facilitator, use your ability to tie ideas together and to suggest other areas for consideration.

4. Continue to ask for elaboration, new ideas, while keeping the general framework of the questions as the agenda for the meeting.

Why this works:

  • The action of writing one’s ideas down on paper empowers people.  If they write an idea down, they want to be sure to express it.  It becomes more valuable to them.
  • If there is a potential hijacker in the room, his/her ideas become equal to everyone else’s.  The imperative of the ‘paper’ means that all ideas must be heard.  This makes it very awkward to monopolize the conversation.
  • The strategy reduces the likelihood that the group will take off on an unproductive tangent.  The facilitator can always bring people back to the key questions.
  • Participants’ written answers are ready-made notes of the meeting.  It’s not necessary but I ask people to identify themselves on these little surveys and it helps later when I want to seek clarification.

 This works for me and I’ve used it in some pretty touchy situations.  Let me know what you think.

Fix the Right Problem

When something terrible happens, we want to do something to prevent a recurrence.  A baby dies while sleeping with his mother and local officials and the public at large want to see a strategy presented that will keep such an awful thing from happening again.  The rate of HIV/AIDS increases among young gay African American men and a new program targeted at this group emerges.  This effort to jump in quickly to try to prevent another accident, another death, and more community sorrow is laudable but flawed.  Here’s why.

We can spend a lot of time and money trying to solve the wrong problem.  The diagnostic process is very abbreviated when a group of people want to see action right away.  “I don’t care what we do,” I’ve heard more than once.  We just need to have some action on this. Send the community a message that we’re going to do something about it.  No one wants another study group or task force, they’ll say.  Let’s just get moving!

My experience is that people hardly ever really know what needs to be done.  Faced with a disturbing community event or trend, say an 11-year old waving a gun around on a local playground or the smoking rate among young adults suddenly jumping several percentage points, the leadership, including the content experts, will assume that they know a) the origins of the problem; and b) how to fix it.  More over, they will have a sense of certainty that will push all alternative explanations and ideas into a very small corner. This is a mistake. In order to solve a problem, we need to understand its origins. 

For example, if we respond the the 11-year old with the gun by implementing yet another violence prevention curriculum, will that prevent other kids from bringing weapons to school?  No, it won’t, unless we spend the time figuring out why kids think it’s a good idea to bring a gun to school.  First of all, why is there a gun at home where the child can reach it?  Second, what was this child’s and most children’s thoughts when they bring guns to school?  Are they wanting to impress, joke around, scare somebody?  Are they being bullied?  (This is our very favorite explanation now.)  Are they the bullier?  Is the point of intervention the child?  Or is it the parent?  If we up the violence prevention curriculum and there is still a gun lying on the dresser at home, have we changed this child’s mindset?  I don’t know.

It is very possible to have wonderful programs with great outcomes that have little or no effect on a community problem.  It happens all the time.  It happens because program designers, funders, and implementers are often too sure of themselves and their solutions.  Even an evidence-based approach is no insurance that a program will have an impact on the community even if the program’s participants have positive outcomes.  For example, taking our gun example, after a violence prevention curriculum, 80% of students thought it was a bad idea to bring a gun to school. Is this success?  Community change?  Not if the young person is having this positive thought while gunshots are being heard down the street.

The tricky thing about program design – deciding what to do – is that it requires time, patience, diligence, and courage.  New questions need to be asked of different types of people living in different neighborhoods and having different reasons for what they do and think.  By assuming we know what to do and how to do it, we sacrifice real impact for speed and the illusion of change.  Time to try a different approach.

My Take on Youth Violence, Part 2: Why are Kids So Angry?

We have an opportunity to connect the dots on this community’s youth violence and maybe start to do something meaningful about it. 

We know that Milwaukee’s gun violence situation is getting worse all the time.  Even though homicides are down, shootings have increased.  This is the first dot, our starting point. Hearing shots fired in many neighborhoods is so commonplace that no one bothers to call the police anymore.  Many Milwaukee kids could tell us more about where shots were fired and by whom than the beat cops probably could.  They hear it all the time.  This should make us wonder whether it is still scary for them.  Maybe, the terror has evaporated and gunshots have become a lot like a car alarm going off.  They hear it but it doesn’t have any impact.

The second dot is the level of violence in many Milwaukee schools.  It isn’t obvious every day but the potential for violence is always bubbling in our schools, particularly high schools.  The hallways can be rough and the security personnel know it.  That’s why they’re stationed with walkie-talkies in strategic places at the top of stairs and the bends in hallways.  Things can go south in a hurry in a public school.  A jostle, an insult is all it takes for physical violence to erupt.  A phone call to mom or siblings brings reinforcements that escalate the fight into a lot more serious business.

Predictably, public officials look at the growing violence and start talking about teaching kids conflict resolution skills.  They say we need to teach kids to handle their frustration and anger without shooting each other.  They have to settle their fights with their fists.  If only Father Flanagan would come back to life and show us the way.  To me, saying that kids need to handle their frustration and anger better begs a very large question and that is, why are kids so angry in the first place?

That’s the question we need to be asking.  It isn’t going to do any good to create one more conflict resolution program or paint any more peace symbols on the wall until we face the ugly truth about why so many of Milwaukee’s kids are so volatile, so hyper-vigilant, and so ready to fight and hurt other people.  My theory is that they’re hurt, badly hurt, and the hurt started when they were little kids and hasn’t let up for a single day.

And here is the third dot.   Why is it that African American students, particularly boys, are three times more likely than White kids to be suspended from school?  Why are African American boys so frequently placed in special education?  Beginning even in kindergarten, school can be an unwelcoming and even hostile place for an African American boy.  What does it mean to put a child out of the school building, not once or twice but dozens of times over the course of a single school year?  What does it say to the child?  Leave.  We don’t want you here.

Being put out of school is just one part of the anger-building process but it’s a fundamental one.  Add to the equation a young boy thinking his father doesn’t want him either.  Add to that the stress and strain of coping with poverty and wanting what other people have like a decent house, a car, and a job.  Anger and frustration takes years to build to the level where a young man can whip out a gun and shoot somebody.  How do we replace the early hurt suffered by so many young men in our city with attention and compassion?  How do we stop rejecting and start embracing?  Those are the questions to ask.

I Could’ve Been a Bat Girl: Notes from Spring Training

Replaying one of my favorite posts from the past because……I’m at spring training.

Of course, how could I have been a bat girl? There ARE no bat girls. Bat people are boys. We all know that. Still. I could pick up bats and keep the ump supplied with balls with the best of them. Because I’ve been to spring training. In fact, I’m at Brewers Spring Training in Phoenix, AZ as we speak. And if there’s a better place to be, I sure don’t know where it is.

I’m not a maniacal baseball fan, nor a student of baseball. However, I am married to an avid fan and attend a lot of games every year – we’re talking 25 or so not counting 3-4 spring training games. Until very recently, watching baseball was a meditative experience for me. But then something clicked – I think it was the day I got the metaphorical significance of Striking Out Looking – and I started to love baseball and baseball players alot.

Spring training is the loveliest thing in the world if you are any kind of a fan at all. First of all, everything about it makes you feel new – new season, new players, new promises. Makes everyone feel like they’re 25. It’s also the most relaxed and mellow place on earth (except for the young guys coming up trying to impress the coaches). There’s a road in Phoenix called Carefree Highway and, in my mind, it runs right to Maryvale where the Brewers Stadium is located. Picture the program vendor who dumps his sack in the 8th inning to stand atop the dugout to lead the crowd in YMCA or the former MPS teacher, now beer vendor, who gives each section a grade on how well they echo his trademark yell.

Most of all, people are happy. The players joke around and tease each other. Prince Fielder has a big grin on his face – something you don’t see once regular season starts. And everyone is kind and chatty and generous. Uncharacteristically, I made a play to catch a promotional T-shirt, missed it, only to have the woman who did catch it give it to me. Dang.

Nothing real profound here. Just Arizona in March with a bunch of young guys playing ball and having fun. Hard to complain. 🙂

We Can Do Better: Community Plan to End Youth Violence

Public hearings are great but they’re just the beginning of solving a problem.  Last week’s ‘speak out’ on youth violence (2/28/12 at MPS Central Office) gave people voice.  That’s terrific but the benefit of that exercise lasts about 30 seconds.  In contrast, a professionally facilitated discussion would have led to a community plan.

Let’s look at this in plainer terms.  School administrators and board members left last week’s meeting with a massive list of complaints and ideas, all of which combined to land them squarely in hedgerow country.  This means that they’re going to be wandering around in the maze while the violence continues and more people get hurt.  They’re going to be in hedgerow country because a list doesn’t lead to a plan.

Discussion leads to a plan. A group that large convened to talk about an issue that important could have generated the foundation of a communitywide plan if the discussion had been professionally facilitated.  A facilitated discussion would welcome and honor everyone’s point of view and then help the group organize their ideas into a plan of action.

A key element of a facilitated discussion is that people talk to each other.  They don’t just testify, they discuss, connect, find common ground, build common cause, and become empowered.  After a facilitated discussion, participants leave feeling connected to a solution that they helped craft.  This is a lot different than spending 2 minutes speaking truth to power as we like to say and then going home to watch SVU reruns. 

This community is ready to be genuinely engaged in a citywide discussion about youth violence.  Think Frontier Airlines Center — that’s how big the discussion should be.  Think a dozen trained faciliators supporting discussions on key elements of youth violence.  Think multiple big screens with PowerPoints created by the discussion groups on the spot.  Think about critiqueing and debating and revising and producing. 

This community — this strange, diverse, struggling, wonderful community – doesn’t need another damn list about youth violence.  WE NEED A COMMUNITY PLAN.


The International Association for Public Participation has members who facilitate broad community discussions all over the world.  Read more here.

See the JSOnline article “Community brainstorms helping at-risk youth” at